Stephen Sondheim once wrote, in Gypsy, you got to have a gimmick and that seems to be the popular theme of today’s picture books for children. It’s no longer enough to have beautiful pictures or glorious words. The book has to be able to DO something and the child has to be engaged in the manipulation of the book or the story so that they’ll get to the end and start reading it again.
This is not a new phenomenon, but it has certainly picked up speed since the introduction of books by the French artist, Herve Tullet. Tullet’s books, which actively engage the child in pushing, shaking, tilting, and turning the book, were quickly imitated and a whole new genre seems to have been born.
Naturally, these books depend more on illustrations that on words (with one notable exception), and call on the nascent humor of the child and the adult reading the book to improvise a relationship with what the author or illustrator has produced.
These are sure-fire kid-pleasers and, if your child doesn’t already have titles in this list in their personal library, you might want to go out and get them. Also, these are terrific presents for other children in your life.
I like to say that these are interactive books that require no batteries and absolutely no screen time; just the amazing imagination of a child:
Press Here, by Herve Tullet.
The minute the child opens this book, he is engaged in activities. The book directs the reader to press on dots, by number or color, to make them multiply. Shaking the book makes all of the dots slide to one side or the other of the page. Inverting the book makes the dots fall to the top or bottom of the page. The book is on heavy stock and will take quite a bit of handling, but if your child loves it as much as most kids do, you might want to stockpile an extra to replace the first when it wears out. When your child tires (it won’t happen!) of Press Here, you can move on to Mix It Up! which teaches colors and color mixing with the same “fingers on” approach, or Help! We Need a Title! which involves a monstrous assortment of characters in search of an author (et voila! Tullet!) to produce a book. Tullet makes a guest appearance as do a couple of referential jokes about his other books. Great fun!
Go Away, Big Green Monster!, by Ed Emberly.
Emberly, whose color-splashed, wildly drawn illustrations have been around for a while, pre-dates Tullet in reader involvement in his books. This title is one we use regularly for non-scary monster story times. A black page with yellow eyeballs appearing in two holes starts the book and, with each turn of the page, the child builds, the elements of a monster face. Giving the child control of the process, it is then time to make the monster go away so each page takes away one of the monstrous features. At the end, the child has banished the monster and admonished him not to come back again. At which point most kids scream, “Again,” and the monster building reemerges.
Tap the Magic Tree, by Christie Matheson.
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Matheson sincerely flatters Herve Tullet. The illustrations, however, are more realistic, picturing a tree in different seasons with leaves and fruit coming and going at the child’s command. The child can knock on the tree trunk to make apples fall off, or blow away autumn leaves ready to fall. The clap of a child’s hands bring snow (please stop clapping, kids!) and as winter turns to spring again, birds nest in the tree and the process stars over.
Tap to Play, by Salina Yoon.
If children drank (well, I hope they don’t) we could play a drinking game with each book that involves the word “tap” in the title. This book, however, also features an adorable, animated dot named Blip, who has big round eyes. Blip grows and shrinks, changes form and appearance based on the child’s manipulation of the book. The book is framed as a game that the child and Blip are playing with the final result being Blip taking off, birdlike, and finding a Blippette girlfriend at the end of the book. Kids will love it.
Duck! Rabbit!, by Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Tom Lichtenheld.
This award winning book from several seasons back plays on the optical illusion of a shape that can be either or a duck depending on your perspective. An off-page voice debates as to whether the long protuberances are a duck’s bills or a rabbit’s long ears. The duck/rabbit is tempted with carrots or bread to see which he responds to. Water might be cooling or a place to swim. The mystery of the ambiguous animal is never quite solved only to be replaced by an equally ambivalent anteater/dinosaur.
Warning: Do Not Open This Book!, by Adam Lehrhaupt.
Any book that involves monkeys is bound to be funny. So a book that is full of monkeys, baboons and apes has to be really, really funny. However, kids have to be careful not to let the monkeys out of the book. You know what happens when you let monkeys out of a book, right? They all go a little crazy. So does the book especially when they come up against an alligator. But the child has control of the style. The reader gets to set a monkey trap with, what else, a banana. Then, under strict instructions from the author, the reader is told to close the book, but only till he or she opens it again and lets the monkey shines begin!
Can You Make a Scary Face?, by Jan Thomas.
Jan Thomas has a whole series of interactive, boldly colored books that will not just engage your child, but reduce both of you to tears. A very bossy (male) lady bug demands that your child stand up, sit down, eat a bug, blow it out of his mouth, and summon a gigantic frog. For full effect, your child must do EVERYTHING the book tells him or her to do. Two suggestions: the second time the bug tells your child to “Stand up,” you might tell them to sit down even though it isn’t written. Otherwise, your child will be standing for the rest of the book. Also, this lady bug needs a personality to be really funny. When I tell it, he sounds like a refugee from a gangster movie. You can develop your own character to make him both bossy and a scaredy cat.
The Book With No Pictures, by B.J. Novak.
This book has been the absolute hit of the year, written by B.J. Novak, the head writer of the TV show The Office. (He also played Ryan, the temp, Michael Scott’s long-suffering punching bag). Novak has taken a book and proved that you don’t need pictures to make a picture book. All you need is a gullible adult who is willing to do what the book says, whether it is to say nonsense words or read gross-out phrases like “Boo Boo Butt.” That’s as bad as it gets. Honest. The final page, when the reader has to go through a series of sounds, squeaks, and yodels to please the listener will have the kids in stitches and begging the reader to start again.
These books may not be lyrical or lovely, but they are certainly a lot of fun and they are guaranteed to give your child a new love for reading in all of its inventive forms.
-Written by Lois Rubin Gross, Senior Children’s Librarian